Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

Month: February 2012

Fantasporto – Day 2

If it’s the end of February, I must be in Porto again, for the Fantasporto fantasy film festival. It is always one of my favorite film festivals in one of my favorite cities.

So far, my favorite movie has easily been Juan of the Dead, the Cuban zombie film that has been racking up awards all over the world since making its debut in Toronto last September. So hard to believe that they actually convinced the Cuban government to let them film in Havana, but somehow they did it.

Bellflower is kind of a cross between Breaking the Waves and Fight Club. But I don’t think I mean that in a way that is complimentary to any of those films. It certainly was not terrible. It has a few stylistic moments, a couple of laughs (although perhaps the biggest one was not intentional), but not enough to sustain the meandering story and middling characters.

Bag of Bones, Mick Garris’s TV adaptation of the Stephen King novel, did not start until well after midnight, and old man that I am, I just could not stay awake that late, and gave up about an hour in.

I even checked out one Canadian movie, Eddie the Sleepwalking Cannibal — it’s a Canadian-Denmark co-production and a pretty silly film, but I seemed to be more forgiving of its problems than others I have talked to.

Friday night, I was stumbling home, dead tired (having given up on Bag of Bones around 1:30), when I passed an interesting-looking club called Plano B. It turns out the Catalan soul band The Pepper Pots were playing there … and, this being Portugal, they had not started yet. So I decided to check them out — apparently standing and listening to loud music is much easier to get through than sitting in a darkened theater. The finally went on around 2am and it was a good show. Very much in the vibe of Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings. And, as I said, it was a great venue; some old textile plant that was converted into a cavernous club.

Hopefully, though, there will be more sleep from here on out.

Retro-Iran: The Future Isn’t What It Used to Be

Foreign Policy magazine just put up a great photo series of Iran from before the revolution. Cool and fascinating images of bands, fashion, and a swinging Tehran, once upon a time.

Just like Korea has an amazing music and cultural history from the 1960s and ’70s that too few people know about, so too does Iran and many other countries. It’s a sober reminder that history does not always and only travel in one direction, and often art, culture, and societies get torn apart.

Seeing how Iran gets treated by Western popular culture and news media has long rankled me. Yes, their religious elite are pretty oppressive. But this is a culture with a long and rich history, and even today is full of great poets and filmmakers. Not to mention Conference of the Birds, which is one of the world’s great story collections, up there with the Decameron and 1001 Nights.

Foreign Policy also has old photo collections of Mogadishu, Egypt (not so good), Damascus, Mumbai, and Afghanistan.

Hard-Boiled Barcelona

A happy day yesterday, as I managed to track down two more Pepe Carvalho novels (in English, of course, as my Spanish reading skills are pretty poor). Pepe Carvalho is one of my favorite detective series, the story of a former-communist and former CIA agent turned private detective working out of Barcelona. Carvalho is also a Galician living in Barcelona, a total foodie (to comical proportions), very smart and even more cynical, making him a good way for author Manuel Vazquez Montalban to mock and critique many aspects of Spanish society and the world.

For the past year or so, I find I have been reading a lot of genre fiction. In part, I have been trying to think about what makes a story/series/character popular. I guess my assumption is that often we take a lot of these well-known stories for granted, but there had to have been something there at the beginning, some kernel that excited people and inspired the popularity in the first place. So I have read some Ian Fleming, John LeCarre, Raymond Chandler, and the like. It’s interesting stuff, especially seeing how much slower and lower-stakes the conflicts could be just a generation ago. Other times, you can see some good writing going on, even among writers who perhaps grew more hack-like as time went on.

Anyhow, in the process, I have stumbled across the Carvalho series. The first one I read is still my favorite, Southern Seas, in part because it is set in the late Seventies and has a lot of twisted politics in it. I also really liked An Olympic Death, which talks a lot about how Barcelona was changing during the run-up to the 1992 Olympics (even if some of its AIDS-related storyline has ages poorly).

All the Carvalho books provide great looks at a Barcelona that has so totally changed over the past generation … and yet has not changed as much as most people think. Vazquez Montalban has a style that reminds me a bit of Nikos Kazantzakis in its earthiness (although definitely less literary than Kazantzakis), and Carvalho is a bit of a Zorba character.

I also find it interesting the Vazquez Montalban, who was from Barcelona originally, would choose to make his signature character hail from the opposite side of the country.  Was there a reason for this? Commentary on Catalan nationalism? The politics of Franco-era Spain (when he began the series)? Unfortunately, I just don’t know enough about the author or the country to say.

The new Carvalho books I picked up yesterday are Murder in the Central Committee and The Angst-Ridden Executive, both early books in the series, from 1977 and 1981 respectively. I’m really looking forward to reading both.

Catching Up With American Forces Radio & Television in Korea

I really like Thomas Whetson’s great website AFRTS Archive, all about the history of the American Forces Radio & Television Service all over the world. However, life gets busy, one gets distracted, and somehow a long time passed without my checking in on his website. Apparently a lot of Korea-related stuff has been posted in the interim.

Here is a post about the first American radio broadcasts in Korea, before AFRTS started. Back then it was called the Far East Network, and started with WVTP in Seoul in 1945 (broadcasting out of the old Bando Hotel), before adding Jeonju and Busan at least by 1947; Jeonju and Busan would close in 1948, and Seoul in 1950. But I loved this scan from Whetson’s site, of the FEN Seoul inaugural broadcast:

Here are a couple more posts I liked:
– A Camp Casey broadcast in 1977 by Thom, just months after the infamous North Korean axe murder of two US Army officers in the JSA. US forces in the area were moving south to Uijeongbu, but they wanted the local radio station to broadcast as if nothing was out of the ordinary, so Whetson did a show for an empty camp.
A practical joke at the AFKN that caused a nation-wide freakout that North Korea was doing something very bad.

Aha – North Korea Rocks, Too

North Koreans playing Aha’s hit “Take On Me”. Seriously.

Kimchi and Chorizo

Last week was the MadridFusion gastronomic conference in the Spanish capital. I’m sure it was a foodie heaven, and Spain is well known for its experimental and high-end dining these days.

But what I did not know until reading this article is that this year’s guest country was South Korea. It talks about chef Yim GiHo who has a highly regarded restaurant called Sandang — I have never been there, but it looks quite promising. The website is full of food porn, if you are into that sort of thing. I don’t consider myself a super-foodie, but I bet it would have been lots of fun to have attended MadridFusion. Besides, Europeans are pushovers for any type of Asian “fusion.”

Out of This World

Apropo of nothing, but I just cannot stop listening to the old song “Space Vacation” (우주 여행), by the Bunny Girls — identical twins Gho Jae-sook and Gho Jung-sook. They performed it on Shin Joong-hyun Sound Vol. 1 (1971), their first recording, a very good Shin record that was filled with a variety of new singers. On “Space Vacation,” the Ghos sing all these strange echo and flanging effects … and no one knows whether they did it for fun or because they did not know how to make the real effects in the studio. Either way, it’s just too much fun.

And if I’m going to get musical on today of all days, I guess I have to include Girls’ Generation’s appearance on David Letterman last night:

There was a “Woah” from Regis Philbin and a “Kamsahamnida” from Letterman himself. As for the quality of the Girls’ performance … well, it was standard lip-syncing K-pop. Well done, of course. My wife thought they looked nervous, causing their dance moves to be a little weak. I assumed they were just hungry.

Meanwhile, we have a rainy day today here in Spain; I’ll be on the lookout for falling frogs.

Oh, and The Atlantic had a piece on K-pop the other day, asking “Does Korean Pop Actually Have a Shot at Success in the US?“. It is not a bad article, as these things go — a tad long-winded, but I think he notes the important thing, that K-pop this time is aiming for the Tween market, where it has the best potential for success. But he really should have discussed the Kim Sisters, a Korean group that did very well in the United States for years, albeit more on the live circuit than in the charts. Here is an article titled “Kim Sisters Can — and Do — Just Anything” from Billboard in 1964.

Anyhow, no signs of Girls’ Generation on the iTunes charts (yet … although they are doing well on the Billboard Heatseeker chart). Not that it matters so much. I think SNSD is getting their name and sound out quite effectively, regardless of how they do on the charts.

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